Friday, September 16

Nigeria’s economic woes self-inflicted – Saraki

Nigeria’s economic woes self-inflicted – Saraki

Saraki: Political colouration weakening anti-graft war

Senate President Bukola Saraki believes that the present administration is racing against time as it battles to address the myriads of challenges facing the country.

To him, the government has just six months to fix the economy and other challenges before the politics of the 2019 elections starts. He speaks in this interview on the state of the nation. BIODUN OYELEYE reports

National Assembly’s efforts on reviving the economy

What we all need to understand is that this recession is not an All Progressives Congress (APC) or Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) problem. This recession does not identify with any party, hence we need to tap into the expertise of our best economic minds wherever they are around the world to come up with plans that both the executive and the legislature can evaluate and implement.

We are going to have an exhaustive and comprehensive debate on fixing the country’s economy when we resume next week. Already, all the economic priority bills are being analysed and collated, so that we can hit the ground running when we resume. We understand the pains that Nigerians are going through and we do not take this for granted.

In every crisis, there is always an opportunity for positive reforms, in this regard, in order to solve this crisis, all hands must be on deck.

Ideas should be sourced from all quarters. All arms of government, people of different political beliefs, from all socio-economic backgrounds and every part of Nigeria must work together at this time Additionally, the Senate intends to invite everybody involved in the management of the economy to address the Nigerian people through the parliament on the steps that are being taken to get us out of this mess.

We fully intend to hold all those involved in the economic management of the country accountable. However, we will do so in a manner that is transparent and beneficial to the country. In every crisis, there is always an opportunity for positive reforms, in this regard, in order to solve this crisis, all hands must be on deck. Ideas should be sourced from all quarters.

All arms of government, people of different political beliefs, from all socio-economic backgrounds and every part of Nigeria must work together at this time. We need to ascertain our actual level of borrowing and what effect the devaluation of the naira has had on our economy; doing this will help us to understand where we are, so that we can determine where exactly we want to go from here.

You will remember also that a lot of pressure came to devalue the naira, that once we allow a free market, it will help foreign exchange but devaluation has taken place but there is no inflow as the supply side has been low and as such, we are beginning see impact on the weaknesses of the naira .

So, the questions we should be asking those who are managing our economy is: How did we get it wrong? What happened to those other indices that should have come in? Actually, one of those indices is what I called confidence; there is a lack of confidence, whether you want to accept it or not. People are not investing in our economy and with that we are going to have challenges. We believe these are the areas we as Senate will be focusing on.

To have a robust debate, we are going to bring in people who are resourceful to come and tell us the way out. And I can assure Nigerians that we are not going to cover anybody up. Nigerians would know the truth and we will ensure that solutions are going to come, and where people are not capable of delivering, we will advise the president accordingly on what need to be done.

This matter has gone beyond what they call ‘man know man.’ This matter affects everyone and nobody is too large or big to be sacrificed in this process.People are truly suffering and I think for the period that I have been in politics; I have not seen this type of suffering.

As such, it requires that we find a solution. It is not that there are no solutions. Yes, sacrifices would be made and we  must tackle it collectively and that is why I keep on emphasising the need for inclusiveness. This is the time we should lay less emphasis on the different political parties but work with whoever has the solution.

Why Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is being delayed

We have completed work on the PIB but unfortunately, when we were to go into the second reading, the Niger Delta Avengers issue came up and it was just bad timing because the first part of the bill addressed the governance issue, which has to do with the structure of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the Petroleum Ministry.

If you look at the bill, it does not address other issues such as the community and exploration in other parts of the country because the first was to tackle the governance aspect. In a stable environment, there is nothing wrong with that but in an environment where the Niger Delta people are already agitating that there is no concern and the impression our colleagues, especially from the South-South have is that once the bill is passed, there is not going to be any focus on their issue.

So the timing was very wrong. We just had and emergency meeting and told them that the bill has to do with governance structure; it is not because we have abandoned them. We believe that the bill should be split into sections.

The point I am making is that all these problems are interlinked and that is why we must find a complete and comprehensive approach to solving them because they all affect each other. I have said many times that the issue in the Niger Delta needs dialogue, we must use dialogue because if you look at what we lose on a daily basis, it is just not worth it, particularly at the time we are now.

We did the budget on 2.2 million barrels per day but we are only producing 1.4 million barrels. Any sacrifice is not too much to resolve the problem. With the right policy, the right approach by government, we will get it done.

Why Nigeria’s economy is in recession

It is my view that some of the problems we have are due to economic downturn but some are self-inflicted and some are because we have not addressed the issues properly. Time has come that we all have to drop whatever is per  sonal issue and put Nigeria first. We have people who are competent and who can do it.

We need to bring everybody on the table to address our problems. For us in the Senate, we will continue to ask questions to make sure that we put pressure on the people concerned and to ensure that we bring back progress report.

As soon as we resume, we will engage all those who have expertise on this areas and get their details and to provide all the necessary cooperation. I have talked about how we can stimulate the economy; we must bring down the interest rate, government must spend money.

I don’t think they are spending money in line with what we budgeted. And one of the first bills we passed was the Public Procurement Bill. We addressed one of the most important issues; we cut down the number of turnaround days for the award of contract by 50 per cent. We looked at the law before and we changed the number of days it takes to do those things.

And that is why I want to task the media to also focus on some of these efforts instead of sensational issues. One of the issues we have with the ministries today is that the budget has been passed, but how many of these contracts have actually gone through due process and contracts awarded? You will find out that most of them are stocked with due process.

Effects of trial on running of the Senate

I don’t think I need to answer that question because the focus for us now is how to improve the economy. I don’t want to talk but I am sure that at the end of the day, I will clear myself from all these issues. I said some time that these are politicians fighting; they were defeated in the political arena, so they carried the fight to the judicial arena. It is unfortunate but what is important to us today which should be the primary focus of all us is how to deal with the economy.

Every action we take should be driven by that. It is because of this distraction that some people are getting away with certain things. If you have made a commitment as a minister that you are going to bring in an amount of money as external borrowing. Why is nobody asking if this money coming in.

Political philosophy It might sound simple, but service to the people has always been my focus since I joined public service. I am driven all the time by how I can make life better for the people. Throughout my eight years in office as governor, I don’t know any contractor who can say I demanded anything from him. And that is why it is not all about election time in Kwara State.

We are not in election period now but we are here but a lot of other politicians don’t do that. They run away after election and come back six months to election. That is insincerity. I also believe that you should stand on what you believe. I am not afraid to look at anybody in the face. You will remember during the time of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan that I stood up on the issue of oil subsidy.

Nobody wanted to talk, everybody knew that  money was being stolen and it’s been going on for years but nobody was ready to talk because people were being offered so much but I stood and said no. Again, when we decided to leave PDP; a lot of people here in Kwara were worried.

It has never happened before that you will defeat a sitting government but if some of us did not move from PDP with that boldness I don’t think that it would have been possible to do what we did. So, my belief is to stand for whatever I believe in and defend it because of the people. That is what has always driven me.

Budget padding

I have not talked about this publicly but when the National Assembly resumes, we shall talk about it. But again, as I keep on saying, those of you who report and interpret news have a lot of role to play. You know Nigerians believe whatever you report, so we should not now allow sensationalism to affect issues affecting our people.

Niger Delta problem and insurgency

We must engage the people of the Niger Delta because if you look at it, it is not as if any of the benefits that were agreed had been stopped. It is fear of the unknown and lack of inclusion that has brought about the current challenge.

I think it will be easier to tackle these ones than the earlier one because like I said, some of the agreements made at the first time are still in place. When people have the phobia of not being involved, of not being part of, then you see the kind of things we are seeing, and that is why we say that dialogue will easily resolve the problem.

I think it is slightly different from what we are seeing in the North-East about the Boko Haram. A lot of progress has been made by the military in that area and I think what is really important now is the issue of reconstruction and development and a final onslaught to clear the remnants of the insurgents from the Sambisa forest.

And then we need to address the humanitarian issues and ensure that the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are able to go back to their communities. And also to ensure accountability and this is an area the Senate will take up seriously when we resume.

We are hearing that food stuffs meant for the IPDs are being diverted. This must be seriously investigated and we must treat that as a serious offence. I can’t imagine how callous people can divert food meant for the IDPs to make money. Those who are responsible will be called by the Senate to come and explain exactly what is going on.

Treasury Single Account (TSA) policy and recession

Addressing the economic recession is a package of many things. The TSA could be a factor because if you consider the fact that a lot of money has been sucked out of the banks and they are not in a position to lend money to the private sector. But it cannot be in isolation.

TSA is not the only reason because there are lots of policies. I give you an example of the foreign exchange, where the cry was to devalue the naira, but when you devalue without other necessary policies, the devaluation is in vain.

The argument for devaluation was that it would stimulate export and bring in money into the country but at the end of the day, nothing has come in because the other policies that will enhance the devaluation, to ensure that you are truly a free market economy, are not there. Again, there is a balancing act.

The advantage of TSA is that there is a lot of transparency which has prevented abuses, but again, there might be other ways of achieving that without necessarily affecting the economy. So, it is a balancing act between fighting corruption and stimulating the economy. You need to look at it each time and see which one has greater value at a time.

Can you still achieve anticorruption by ensuring a more transparent way by which government agencies manage their accounts? Is it only at the Central Bank that agencies can maintain a transparent management of their account? But you must also note that a situation, where an agency runs about 10 or 20 different accounts encourages corruption. Can you tighten the process? It is a matter that needs to be looked at as part of the package of policies for the economy.

Reducing cost of governance

We all agree on this and if you look at the budgets of the National Assembly over the past two years, they have focused on reducing the cost of governance. It is unfortu-  nate that as in most part of the world, the parliament is at the receiving end.

When you look at the percentage of the budget of the National Assembly within the budget of the country, you will see that it is less than five per cent. But the way people talk about it, you will think it is more than that. Even if you remove the entire budget of the National Assembly, the best you will add to the national budget is five per cent. Is that five percent what will bring recession?

I think we really need to be fair to ourselves. Unfortunately, because of the way it has been reported, some people believe that once you reduce the budget of the National Assembly, Nigeria will get better. Our view is to reduce cost of governance.

At a time we were running a budget of about N150 billion but now we are at about N115 billion, which is close to about 25 per cent reduction. So, I think it is more of a problem of perception than reality.

If you look at the TSA, when it was brought before us, we set up a ad hoc committee to look at the cost of the TSA and just by that singular act alone, where we directed the CBN to reduce the charges that was being paid to the company doing the TSA, government was able to save about N10 billion.

That gives you an insight about some of the values of parliament. This exceeds far above what the cost of governance might be but unfortunately, these are not reported. Despite the amount involved; despite the people involved, we made sure that the committee completed its work.

And the same thing was what we did with Customs duty waiver, which involved billions of naira and very powerful people. Again that report came to the floor and we debated it. So, when people talk about anti-corruption, I believe the National Assembly has shown that it is a place where nothing would be covered.

We are now talking about money stolen from the office of the National Security Adviser; where were all of us when this was going on? Was there any time there was a public hearing on those funds? No! Look at what we did on Nigeria Extractive Transparency Initiative (NEITI).

Its reports had been coming for years but nobody debated them and I challenged the anti-corruption agencies that they are just pursuing chairmen of local governments for stealing N1 million whereas people are stealing $300 million and we never heard that anyone from those agencies visited them. This is what I find very distasteful and very frustrating. We don’t talk the main issues but at the Senate, we will continue to expose all these.

Time frame to end recession

I am not going to join anybody in saying that recession will be over by tomorrow, one month or so. No! I am not going to do that because I am not convinced yet that  we have put the right policies in place or the right laws or the right solutions.

All I am concerned about right now is let us find the solution, let us agree on those solutions and let us hold those who are responsible for implementing those solutions accountable. Once we have debated it, once we have agreed on the solution, then I will be able to say yes, with those solution then we are going to get out of it.

Like I said, we have a serious financial deficit in our budget and we are banking on external borrowing, almost $3 billion but I don’t think one dollar has come in. If one dollar has not come in, how are you going to finance the budget?

So, when you start giving a time-frame, I don’t think we are being sincere. It is as we implement the solutions that we can now say this is the possible time frame. But for now the solutions, in my own view have not been put in place.

Challenges of running the National Assembly

I had the opportunity of being governor for eight years, and also the opportunity to chair the Governors’ Forum which is a meeting of colleagues just like in the National Assembly. Those two areas prepared me well for where I am today and I believe that one has the capability and knowledge of what is required.

The challenges are being brought under control and the confidence that my colleagues have in me have also increased despite all the levels of agitations and distractions.

The confidence vote has been running at very high percentage despite all the issues. Where we are now, is how to use the office to help our people and that is why I always tell those in government that this is the time to have stronger collaboration between the arms of government because for as long as the arms of government continue to brickbat, it is Nigerians who will suffer.

Already, our tenure is almost over. As you all know, by the time we enter April next year, politics will start again; whether at the federal, state or local government levels. So, we really have only six months to really address these problems, so that is why we must do everything to address them.

We must be ready to work with anybody who can help us. Things are rough, things are tough and if you are in touch with your people, you will know. The media should put us under pressure.

Evaluation of the fight against corruption

My view has always been that we must find a holistic approach to the fight against corruption. The fight goes beyond sensational reporting in newspapers. I believe there must a transparent process. Once we bring political colouration into the fight against corruption, we weaken the fight because if you look at it today, even the society is some time indifferent; they don’t know which corruption and which is not, and I think it is because the process is not transparent.

The society is even the greatest cause of corruption because when they see someone who suddenly begins to spend money, they don’t ask questions about how he acquired his sudden wealth. But if the society beings to reject such people, then we are on the right path. It goes beyond the anti-corruption agencies.

If we believe that corruption can only be fought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or one man, we are deceiving ourselves. It will go and come back. It is institutions that we need to fight corruption and that I have not seen.

We need to strengthen the institutions and that is what we are trying to do at the National Assembly by increasing their budget.

My own personal experience has exposed to me the capacity and competence of the agencies; that it is too low, it is not there yet and that is why you see a lot of cases when they get to the courts, they collapse because some of them are based more on sensation and because Nigerians love to hear such, at the end of the day the whole matter just fizzles out.

So, we are trying to make them very transparent so that if you are before them you are sure. Is there a petition? Was there an investigation?

Not that for Mr. A there is a petition and investigation while for Mr. B there is no petition, no investigation and you just take him to court. Once you have that kind of inconsistencies, they raise questions from the people.

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